In January 2017, the Philippines and China agreed to cooperate on 30 projects worth USD 3.7 billion to reduce poverty in the Philippines. Among these, “three projects valued at USD 3.4 billion, all located on the main island of Luzon, have been identified by both governments during a visit to Beijing last month by a business delegation led by Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.”
While the US-Philippine alliance has been underperforming recently, we have seen the Philippines tilt towards China in a bid to normalize their bilateral relationship and for greater Chinese investment. After US-Philippine relations plunged after Washington criticized President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs,” we have witnessed a stronger commercial alliance formed between China and the Philippines.
Despite having a strong historical relationship, the US and the Philippines have a love-hate affair. The US’ interest in Philippines dates back to the late 19th century when Spain surrendered the Philippines to the US in 1898 after a colonial period of 300 years. The islands became the first US colony. US colonialism is viewed much more positively than Spanish colonialism. During the World War II when the Philippines joined hands with the US to combat Japan, "the common effort against the Japanese greatly increased the American level of respect for the Philippine people". The US has consistently ranked as one of the Philippines’ favorite nations, and 92 percent of Filipinos viewed the US favorably in 2014 and 2015.
Nevertheless, US-Philippine relations have always been ambiguous. The US occupation of the Philippines overwhelmed the country with much Americanness in the cultural, social, and political aspects. Yet the search for a Philippine national identity under colonialism drew its people into negative postcolonial mental scripts. The large US military presence in the Philippines also created deep discomfort in many Filipinos.
President Duterte himself is a good example of how one with a strong sense of nationalism yet haunted by colonial history can establish a love-hate relation with the US. In Duterte’s words, the Filipinos hated having foreign troops in their country and being treated like “a dog barking for crumbs” instead of a true ally. While Filipinos viewed the US as a “great country” that has helped the nation “in many ways,” including providing military protection, the US is also perceived as having lived off the fat of the land.
The presence of US military bases in the Philippines is of significant importance to the US. The bases support US’ strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific, facilitate rotational deployments of US forces near the contested South China Sea, and also support installations for supply, repair, and staging services for American forces in East and South Asia. They proved to be instrumental in the Cold War, "supported operations in the Korean War, and later in Vietnam and Southeast Asia". The Philippines gained military and economic aid from the presence of the US military bases. With the possible closure of US military bases in the Philippines, the host country is likely to suffer a loss in economic benefits while the US loses military flexibility.
While politics and diplomacy may be murky, pragmatism prevails in real practice. After all these hiccups in US-Philippine relations, the US was given the green light on January 26 to start work as part of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that “allows expansion of rotational deployment of US ships, aircraft and troops at five bases in the Philippines as well as the storage of equipment for humanitarian and maritime security operations.” While this seems to contradict Duterte’s foreign policy shift, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said “it will not jeopardize promises of extensive Chinese trade and investment and offers of military hardware.”
The Philippines seems to be the biggest winner of walking the fine line between the US and China. Not only have Duterte’s bluster and strategic move of realignment formed a new normal in US-Philippine relations, repositioning the Philippines in a less inferior position, it also secured Chinese investments for its economic benefit. While Duterte’s animosity with the US was grounded in the US’ denouncement of his domestic programs, newly-elected President Trump’s inward-looking America-first policy is likely to see the Philippines go soft on the US, at the same time harnessing economic benefits from China, Asia’s big power.